From the high ground to the north of the city, I looked south to a point on the river. At this stage in its life it was making unavoidable preparations for its admission into the oblivion of the Bristol Channel. An object of man’s ingenuity that links communities on the east and west banks of the river was highlighted by a shaft of sunlight that pierced the layer of cloud and made the structure that bestrides the river look like a model or a child’s toy.
One of the ways to approach the prey is to stalk it on foot through the inner-city district to the south of the city centre that forms one the city’s parishes. As the hunter on the trail of this beast of the river passes through a mixture of Victorian buildings and later developments in the estuarine flatlands, tantalizing glimpses of the quarry flashes upon the eye through a gap in a terrace, or over the roof of a once-grand Victorian public house, or in the reflection from a blacked-out window of a derelict industrial unit, looming larger with each step taken towards it. Then, rounding the corner of a street landmarked by a mini-mart that serves both the community and the visitors to it as one of its orientation points, there it is. Although I’ve been expecting it to appear at any moment, its sudden appearance in my field of vision still comes as a bit of a shock. There it stands starkly before me. The whole of it as I saw it from the ridge way to the north but now magnified to gargantuan proportions by the proximity resulting from thirty or so minutes’ steady walking. Towering over me is the Newport Transporter Bridge, like a cousin of the Eiffel or Blackpool towers, but a relation to which only whispered reference is made within the family.
A transporter bridge is essentially an aerial ferry carrying vehicles and foot passengers on a gondola suspended from a travelling cradle that runs along a boom high above the fluctuating level of a river. The advantage of such a structure is that it allows unhindered access upstream of the bridge while avoiding the difficulty, impracticality and expense of either tunnels or high-level bridges. The period from 1893 to 1911 saw the building of several transporter bridges. The first to be opened was in 1893 at Portugalete in Spain.
The fate of two men came together in the construction of the transporter bridge at Newport. R. H. Haynes was Newport’s borough engineer at the time of the discussions about the provision of a new crossing of the wide and fast-flowing River Usk. Haynes had heard of the work of the French engineer Ferdinand Arnodin, in particular that of his aerial ferry.
Arnodin was born in 1845 and lived in Chateau Neuf sur Loire. In 1872 he set up his own business with the view of reviving suspension bridge construction in France. Arnodin was one of the pioneers of the innovation of spirally wound cables from which the main span was hung. With a reputation as an expert on suspension bridges and of being at the forefront of technological developments, Arnodin was approached about a transbordeur for Newport.
Arnodin was engaged by the burgesses of Newport as a recognized specialist in the field, Parliamentary approval was obtained, he and Haynes were appointed joint engineers of the project, detailed design was undertaken and the bridge was opened on the 12th September 1906. Arnodin designed another seven bridges, the Newport Transporter Bridge being the last of his designs to be realized. In total, there were sixteen transporter bridges built world-wide, three in the UK; eight remain standing, including those at Warrington, Middlesbrough and Newport.
The recent August bank holiday was one of those occasions when the public is allowed to cross the bridge along the walkway on the high-level boom linking the four lattice-work towers. I’ve made the crossing on the gondola a couple of times since the bridge was re-opened following a major refurbishment in the early nineties but this was the first time making the crossing on the elevated walkway, 177 feet above the grey waters of the river.
Taking a couple of deep lungfuls of the air that had passed over the Bristol Channel from the direction of Weston-super-Mare, I prepared myself for the climb to the walkway. The ascent of the nearly 300 steps, arranged in ten steep flights on one of the legs of the bridge, was accomplished without any delay or inconvenience. Reaching the top of the last flight, I stepped - cautiously I have to confess - onto the platform of the south tower on the western bank of the river. It was the first time in such circumstances that I had felt slightly queasy; usually, I am unaffected by what is a not an unreasonable feeling of anxiousness provoked by being so high up on a structure that is more empty space that substance. It was, however, a short-lived discomfort as, with another couple of restorative lungfuls of air, my attention was attracted to the view from the vertiginous position above the ebbing tide.
In the time since I had arrived at the bridge and stepped onto the platform, the change in the atmospheric conditions meant that the panoramic views were not obscured by cloud or rendered indistinct by haze. To the northwest is the line of hills that form a natural bulwark between the city and the surrounding valleys; to the southwest the Millennium Stadium, standing shoulder to shoulder with the River Taff, confidently raises its head above Cardiff’s skyline; and to the southeast could be seen Weston’s grand pier, like a bony finger pointing to the passing ghost of a paddle-steamer.
As I walked along the walkway, I looked towards the city-centre, tracing an air-drawn line along the meanders of the Usk. I could clearly see the three bridges that lay between the transporter bridge and the present incarnation of the first, medieval, bridge by the ruins of the city’s Norman castle that had appeared during the 105 years since the completion of the structure on which I was standing.
At the approximate mid-point of the crossing, I paused to watch the gondola pass below me as it conveyed its load of passengers from the west bank to the east bank of the river. From the slightly different perspective of the south tower on the eastern bank, I took a last look at the view before descending the tower’s flights of steps. While waiting for the departure of the gondola to return to the west bank, I took a look at the two 35hp electric motors (the original ones) that provide the power to turn the drum around which is wound the cable that pulls the moving frame from which the gondola is suspended.
The importance of the Newport Transporter Bridge as a rare and noteworthy structure was recognized by Grade I listed building status being conferred upon it following its refurbishment. It is a legacy from the transitional period between the Victorian and the modern industrial eras that is worthy of celebration and deserving of admiration for being a remarkable technological achievement that is, in Alderman Canning’s poetical effusion, ‘a giant, with the grace of Apollo and the strength of Hercules’.